In the second season of HBO’s Sex and the City, a slightly prudish comment about sex from the “Park Avenue Princess” Charlotte, is met by the characteristically cutting response from Samantha: “I’m sorry, did someone just order a Victorian straight up?” The connotations of “Victorian” in this comment are self-evident. In disagreeing with Samantha’s more risqué views on sex, Charlotte is conforming to an outdated perception of sexuality that is in line with the supposed repressiveness of a nineteenth-century Britain.
In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that we associate the Victorian era with “the imperial prude”, and tend to think of the period as one in which any discussion of sex was silenced, and the act itself was confined to the marital home. The repressed Victorian thus becomes a figure against which we compare – and thereby define – ourselves. By discussing sex, we transcend the confines placed on the Victorians and become liberated. And yet, is it really that simple? Foucault notes that ‘the mere fact that one is speaking about [sex] has the appearance of a deliberate transgression.’ It seems like an act of rebellion, a right which we have earned, and thus Charlotte’s flagrant disdain for this right shows that she is harking back to the Victorian period of repression. But for Foucault discussing sex means that a further discourse is created. What appears to be an expression of liberation is actually an act of self-repression. By viewing sexuality as something natural which can be ‘liberated’, Samantha has fallen victim to the discourse which created the concept. Charlotte’s prudish approach to the discussion is no more ‘repressive’ than Samantha’s because they are both bound to a language of sexuality.
This seems like an appropriate time to discuss pubic topiary. In an episode of season 3, ‘Sex and Another City’, lead character Carrie gets a ‘Brazilian’ wax. The women discuss the emerging craze for waxing with mild horror as Carrie remarks: “I’m so aware of down there. I feel like I’m nothing but walking sex”. The topic is returned to quite differently eight years later in Sex and the City: The Movie (2008). Here, Samantha chastises Miranda for not waxing before wearing a swimming costume, going as far as to blame the breakdown of Miranda’s marriage on her neglect of her bikini line. In a manner reminiscent of Foucault’s account of the transition between the Victorian and the supposedly modern, what was once regarded with shock has become the expected, even demanded, ‘norm’.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno attributed his aversion to jazz to its roots in slave songs, which he says ‘combined the lament of unfreedom with its oppressed confirmation’. What seemed to be a form of expression allowing the slaves to ‘lament’ their circumstances, was actually just another way of conforming to a stereotype set down by their oppressors. Similarly, what may have been original or revolutionary about jazz, was destroyed by a cultural industry which sought to conform it to a set genre. So, in their shift in attitude towards waxing between Season 3 and the film, have the women of Sex and the City created their own version of Adorno’s slave song? Do Samantha’s pubic priorities in the film prove how far we have come since 2000, or do they instead show a form of enslavement? In the words of Carrie Bradshaw: ‘I couldn’t help but wonder,’ can we discuss sexuality without creating further discourses?